Woman prisoner becomes fourth suicide victim at jail

A 26-year-old woman has been found hanged in her prison cell, the fourth female suicide victim at the same jail in just 10 months. Victoria Robinson used a towel to hang herself from a curtain rail at New Hall jail, near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, on Wednesday evening.

She was being held on remand on charges of making threats to kill and was on suicide watch.

Ms Robinson's solicitor said his client had serious mental health problems and should never have been put in prison. Paul Blanchard said he had begged the prison authorities to move her to the hospital wing as he was so concerned about her psychological state, but she had remained in a normal cell.

A report on New Hall last year by the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said too many women were being held "who should not be there". The inspection found that 75 new "suicide watch" cases were opened every month and 124 women had self-harmed in the previous four weeks alone.

Ms Owers warned that untrained and overworked staff were struggling to cope with the numbers of women who self-harmed and were at risk of suicide, and predicted that for some inmates, prison would have "tragic consequences".

Last year, 13 women prisoners killed themselves while in custody, three of whom were being held at New Hall.

Ms Robinson, from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, was remanded in custody on 9 November last year, charged with making threats to kill.

Staff discovered her hanging in her cell just after 6pm and tried to resuscitate her, but she was pronounced dead an hour later. A spokesman for the Prison Service said: "There will be an investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw. Every death in custody is a tragedy and the Prison Service offers its sympathy to the family and friends of Ms Robinson."

But Ms Robinson's solicitor and prison campaigners said not enough was being done to care for highly vulnerable women in the prison system.

Mr Blanchard said that he had been assured that his client would be moved to the hospital wing after he raised concerns about her health. "There were issues that everybody was aware of," said Mr Blanchard. "There was a serious psychological condition and I was seeking to establish whether she would have been fit to plead [to the charges]. One of the governors [at New Hall] said he accepted there were mental health issues and intimated that he was going to put her in the hospital wing. If she had been in the hospital wing, this would not have happened."

Deborah Coles, co-director of the campaign group Inquest, said: "This shameful and relentless death toll exposes a crisis in women's prisons, and the numbers of women being sent to prisons that cannot protect their right to life.

"We are concerned that the lessons from these deaths are not being learnt and because of this, women keep dying."

The suicide rate among female inmates has risen by 200 per cent in the past five years. And in the past decade, the female prison population has more than doubled, leading to severe overcrowding.

In her report on New Hall, the inspector of prisons found worryingly high levels of mental problems, self-harm and suicide among the women.

Prison staff walked around carrying "ligature knives" with which to cut down women who tried to strangle themselves.

Every bed on the healthcare wing was occupied by a woman with a severe mental illness, but overcrowding meant that many other vulnerable prisoners were left in the main jail.

The report said: "New Hall ... is holding women and girls who should not be there. They include those who are seriously mentally ill. Staff were unable to do more than contain the level of need of some very damaged individuals."

FEMALE PRISON DEATHS

Tina Bromley, 37, died HMP Edmunds Hill, 4 January 2004

April Sherman, 27, died HMP Edmunds Hill, 13 January 2004

Sheena Kotecha, 22, died HMP Brockhill, 3 April 2004

Julie Hope, 35, died HMP Holloway, 17 April 2004

Louise Davis, 32, died HMP New Hall, 18 April 2004

Paige Tapp, 23, died HMP Send, 18 April 2004

Sharon Miller, 45, died HMP Durham, 8 May 2004

Heather Wait, 28, died HMP Holloway, 8 May 2004

Rebecca Smith, 40, died HMP Buckley Hall, 1 June 2004

Rebecca Turner, 22, HMP Low Newton, 28 July 2004

Marie Walsh, 29, HMP New Hall, 29 July 2004

Mandy Pearson, 37, died HMP Newhall, 12 October 2004

Katherine Jones, 19, died HMP Brockhill, 15 October 2004

Victoria Robinson, 26, died HMP New Hall, 2 February 2005